L.A. County Fire’s Crack Bulldozer Crews

Aug. 22, 2019
Heavy equipment operators fighting wildfires in Los Angeles County

There’s a lot that goes into it. You don’t just get on a tractor and go plow fire. — Darren Beaty, Acting Senior Firefighting Construction Equipment Operator, Los Angeles County Fire Department

On average, the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California experience a major wildfire every 10 years. The chaparral that blankets the mountains burns, homes go up in smoke, and occasionally, lives are lost. Engines, hand crews, helicopters, and bulldozers attack the flames. Bulldozers? Yes, indeed.

Los Angeles County Fire Department (L.A. County Fire) maintains a fleet of 10 firefighting dozers manned by a stable of 10 heavy equipment operators certified for wildland firefighting. The dozer crews not only fight the flames in the county proper, but also work other agency fires through statewide mutual aid agreements. It’s challenging work that requires unique skills and an unconventional operational mindset.

“The dozer crews are often the heroes of a wildfire incident,” says Derek Alkonis, Assistant Fire Chief in L.A. County Fire’s Air and Wildland Division. “It’s remarkable where they can put that piece of equipment. Sometimes when they’re creating a line up a ridge, you’ll look up and see smoke and fire heading in their direction. But the dozers just keep on trucking.”

Who They Are
“All our operators are journeyman operators,” says Darren Beaty, Acting Senior Firefighting Construction Equipment Operator. Like Ferris, Beaty came from the US Forest Service, and he has been with L.A. County for 15 years. Jay Gardner spent seven years with the Forest Service before he began his 11 years fighting fires for L.A. County. What’s the draw? “I enjoy being able to put out the fire and help folks before it gets to their house,” says Gardner.

Operator candidates have to have some 5,000 hours of stick time before they can apply for a seat in an L.A. County Fire dozer. Once on the department, they train at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (Cal Fire) Heavy Fire Equipment Operator (HFEO) Academy, where they’re taught all they need to know about fighting fire with construction equipment and being in charge of equipment and a crew. The HFEO training is followed by the emergency medical technician (EMT) course required of all Los Angeles County firefighters, and from there they’re placed on limited status, where they’re paired with a qualified operator for a season, which gives them the experience they need to be certified by L.A. County.

All dozer operators are badged personnel, which means that they must keep their department certifications current—every two years for EMT and annual certification for firefighting skills, what Beaty describes as a combination of Internet instruction and drills to get them “back in the mindset” before wildland season. “If you go through a drill like deploying your fire shelter and you pass but aren’t really proficient, then you do it again. If you have to do it five times, you do it five times so it’s second nature.” (Editor’s Note: See the Training Column in this issue for more on L.A. County Fire’s heavy equipment operator training.)

The Equipment
L.A. County Fire’s 10 custom firefighting dozers include nine Caterpillar D8Rs and one CAT D8N. “We buy older machines,” says Beaty, “typically D8Rs, and send them back to Caterpillar to have them remanufactured. They come back recertified with new serial numbers but without the electronics you typically find on Caterpillar machines.

“That’s because our machines have to run at top performance at all times, even if they’re running hot. The machines have gauges and warning buzzers so we know when something is going wrong, but not the computers that will shut them off. That’s why we hire journeymen operators. They know what a machine will do and how long they can push it. If the warning buzzer is set to go off at 190–200 degrees, I know I can run the machine to 205, 210 degrees and keep an eye on it. It still runs at full speed and won’t shut off on me or deregulate.”

The remanufactured CAT dozers come with 15-foot-wide manual angle blades. “Because the firefighting machines are so big, we have to manually manipulate the angle of the blades ourselves,” says Beaty. “Hydraulics would probably break if they had to do that while we’re moving.”

The dozers also have “L.A. County cabs,” which are designed to hold two people, the operator, and a Senior Fire Suppression Aid, the crew’s “swamper.” The glass in the cab is designed to take direct flame impingement and not crack, and the dozers come with add-on communication equipment to keep the crew in the loop with other firefighting resources on an incident. The machines are also equipped with a special charcoal filter system that filters out 98% of the smoke and toxins before outside air enters the dozer’s air conditioning system and with 15-minute escape air bottles for both crew members. “I had to use them once,” says Beaty, “when we popped a window and were taking in smoke and superheated gases from the fire.”

The operator and swamper wear helmets when they’re underway, and a fully equipped firefighting dozer carries water for the crew and “line gear” that includes shovels, fire shelters, first aid equipment, and food in case the operator and swamper are forced to escape on foot to either a hand crew or a helicopter rescue. “I’ve had tractors break down,” says Beaty, “but I’ve always had other machines to help us build a safety zone around it.” And how do you do that? Clear an area between the machine and the fire that’s three to four times the length of the flames coming at you. “That way you can sit in the middle in your tractor and let the fire burn around you.”

The Crew
All L.A. County Fire dozers operate with a three-person crew, the operator, the swamper, and the transportation truck driver who drives the transport that delivers the dozer to the drop-off point. The operator and the swamper follow in the 
tender truck.

The swamper functions as the operator’s right-hand man and safety officer. Both Beaty and swamper Clayton Roadhouse describe it as an extra set of eyes. “The operator is focused on what he’s doing,” says Roadhouse, “and I’m looking ahead to see what needs to be done. I’m his lookout when he needs it.

“A swamper has to know dozer tactics and dozer strategies. He has to be able to pass on instructions from the operator to the people on the ground, whether it’s a hand crew, an engine company, or a division supervisor. He has to be able to read topographical maps and have his Incident Command System qualifications. He may have to get out to cut a fence and scout line and report back to the operator—‘Yes, we can put a line in or no, we can’t because of terrain or other factors.’”

Beaty clarifies. “As the operator, I’m intent not only on the fire, but also the terrain and running the equipment. The swamper might say to me, ‘Hey, the fire’s doing this. Have you seen that?’ And I’ll stop and check—‘OK, I see what you’re talking about.’

“The swamper can adjust the radios to the right frequencies for the fire, and if we’re calling in aircraft and I’m really busy, I can hand that off to him. We’re sitting side by side and even though the tractor’s loud and all the radios are blaring, we can talk to each through the headsets in our helmets.”

The swamper is responsible for the dozer being equipped and ready to go. “When we’re on fire standby, that’s the first piece of equipment I check in the morning when I come to work. I make sure it’s ready to go and I load our fire gear. I also make sure the dozer tender is fueled, the ice chest is full of water and Gatorade, and the radios are up and running. I check the morning reports to see what other resources are staged around us and the fire weather forecast, which I check throughout the day.”

To handle all this, swampers have to have on-the-ground firefighting experience, typically followed with three years as Fire Suppression Aides. After that, they go through a two-week, 80-hour course where they learn what they need to know about dozers, including how to operate the equipment so they can move it into a safe area if something happens to the operator.

Dozer crews work a 40-hour week with three-day shifts, but once they’re assigned to a fire, they’re on it until it’s over. “On the initial attack,” says Beaty, “you could go anywhere from 24 to 32 hours straight before you get to bed down. Once the fire moves into a planned attack or what’s called a campaign fire, we work strict 24-hour shifts, where we’re on 24 hours and off 24 hours. [On federal fires, it’s 12 hours on and 12 hours off]. When we’re working an initial attack, we may need to camp out on the line so we carry ‘war bags’ on the dozer tenders that include an extra change of clothes and sleeping bags and cots or air mattresses. Once the incident goes into a planned attack, we go back to base camp to get food and bed down.”

Once he delivers the equipment to the drop-off point, the third member of the dozer crew, the transportation truck driver, helps unload. During the fire, he will refuel the dozer from the tender truck, refuel the tender, and get food to the crew. Once at the access point, the dozer can be on the ground in five to ten minutes.

What They Do
The dozer crews have two primary respon­sibilities: actually putting out fire with the machine, and “cutting line”—creating wide breaks in the vegetation that rob the fire of fuel. They work as part of a coordinated firefighting response.

“On an initial attack fire, where we get notification from dispatch that there’s a fire somewhere, we’ll have hand crews on it, engines, dozers, and aircraft,” says Alkonis. “The idea is to keep it small, so we’ll attack it with all the resources we have as soon as possible. Dozers play a big part in that, especially if we can get them right on the edge of the fire and they can basically stomp it out.

“Wildland firefighting is a matter of going direct, where you’re right on the fire’s edge, and indirect, where you’re out in front of the fire creating a break in fuel so that firefighters on the ground and in the air have the ability to control the fire and limit its growth. If we can’t catch it while we’re going direct, we’re going to be cutting those lines and getting those fuel breaks in place.”

For dozer crews, it’s a constant process of information gathering and evaluation that doesn’t stop until the fire is over. “We have to be out the door in five minutes,” says Beaty. “We get the information on where the fire is, where we need to report, what resources have been dispatched, and what battalion chiefs are responding to the incident.

“In a direct attack, the dozer is actually pushing the fire, putting it out as it goes. In a parallel attack, the dozer could be anywhere from one to five feet in front of the fire cutting a break as the fire is burning toward it. It’s more dangerous than a direct attack because now you’re in front of the fire with a foot to five feet of material that can burn up on you. What’s considered even more dangerous is an indirect attack where we might be a ridge or two in front of the fire putting in fire lines and trying to hold them. You have more fuel between you and your location for the fire to get up a head of steam.

“With a parallel attack, you put the tractor in front of the fire into the green and you’re windrowing the material to the opposite side, back into the green, so when the fire burns up to your line, it burns out because it doesn’t have any fuel. Usually we try that in lighter fuels, so if it does flare up, we can just back up into the black and let the fire do its thing, then pick it up again.

“On an indirect attack, we usually pick a ridgeline and make as many passes as we can before the fire gets there. We take an inch of dirt and all the brush on top because we want to take the fuel break down to mineral soil so there’s nothing for the fire to burn.”

Making Decisions
Soon enough, information gathering on the run turns into decision-making on the run.

On the way to the fire, the operator and swamper are already building their game plan. L.A. County Fire keeps pre-attack maps that track where fuel breaks have already been put in, the result of previous fires or off-season wildfire preparations. “When the crew is notified where the fire is,” says Beaty, “the swamper pulls up the pre-attack map for that area before we even get out the door, and as we’re en route, we’re looking at the maps—‘OK, the fire’s here, we’ve got two or three dozer lines already established in these areas.’”

Like the rest of the firefighting resources on the fire, dozer crews need to be constantly up to date on the weather—hot, cold, windy—plus relative humidity and terrain—are the flames burning through rolling hills or in a steep rocky area, maybe up cliffs? Crews also need to know how the fire is behaving—that is, which direction it’s burning in and how much it’s already burned, plus the types of fuels that are available and how long it’s been since the area burned (providing additional information about how the fire is likely to behave). “You make a calculated guess about what the fire’s doing,” says Beaty, “then you make a decision about how you’re going to handle it—do you do a direct or indirect or parallel attack?”

Once on scene, while the driver and swamper offload the dozer, the operator meets with the incident commander or the operations section chief about what needs to be done or what they’re looking for the dozer crew to accomplish. Are homes or structures at risk, for example, or does the crew have an open mandate to go out and “fight fire”?

“It’s a lot of information to process in a very short period of time, which is why we have procedures like line-up at our morning briefings. I want to know who I’m working with, what other dozer teams are on that day, and who the operators are because I want to know who’s going to come in second behind me, or who I’m going to come in second to help them.”

A Small Community
“Fire dozer operators have a lot of responsibility,” says Beaty. “My decisions affect my swamper and my driver. There’s a lot of calculated risk, but it’s very rewarding, especially when you’ve got a fire that’s been going for three or four hours and the engine and hand crews and helicopters haven’t been able to pick it up and we’ll pick it up with the dozers.”

“It’s a small community,” says Beaty. “We have the California Dozer Operator Group, which includes operators from other agencies as well the outside contractors who work wildfires. Our annual meeting is basically a safety meeting for wildland fire dozer operators where we review what has happened in the last year specific to dozer operators and wildfires and take a look at projections for what we’re likely to see in the upcoming year.

“Fire season isn’t as well-defined as it used to be. You’re on guard all the time.”